Review finds flaws in federal biological opinions

The Associated Press
2/3/02 9:33 PM

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) -- A report by the National Academy of Sciences
concludes that government scientists did not have enough evidence to issue
the biological opinions that cut off irrigation water to Klamath Basin
farmers last summer to protect endangered and threatened fish.

The review, obtained by the Associated Press from Congressional sources,
reviews biological opinions by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on
endangered suckers in the Upper Klamath Lake and the National Marine
Fisheries Service on threatened coho salmon in the Klamath River.

The interim report -- a final version is due out next year -- appeared a
small victory for farmers, who for months have angrily questioned the work
of government scientists that led to the water cut off. The review will be
officially released Wednesday.

In 2001, the federal agencies increased the minimum water level requirement
for Upper Klamath Lake and the Klamath River from what it had been over the
past decade.

In last summer's drought conditions, the new levels forced government
agencies to choose between fish and farmers on the 220,000-acre Klamath
Reclamation Project spanning southern Oregon and northern California. The
Upper Klamath Lake is the project's main water source.

The report found there was not enough specific evidence to justify the
decision by the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Fish and Wildlife
Service to raise the water levels for coho salmon and sucker fish.

"Based on our evaluation, if this was another drought year the farmers
would get more water," said Peter Moyle, a committee member and professor
of fish biology at University of California-Davis. "The basic idea was that
the information just wasn't there to justify the kinds of conclusions that
were there."

Moyle said detailed studies that compare sucker fish populations with water
levels in Upper Klamath Lake weren't available -- and those types of
studies take years to accomplish.

"Incidents of adult mortality (fish kills) ... have not been associated
with years of low water level," the review reads. In addition, "the highest
recorded recruitment of new individuals into the adult populations occurred
... in a year of low water level," it says.

As for the Klamath River coho salmon, the data available doesn't prove that
increased summer stream flows benefit the fish, Moyle said. Also, water
used to increase Klamath River flows would come from reservoirs, where the
water is too warm for the fragile coho, he said.

"The coho really likes cold water, and it doesn't matter how much water you
release down the system if it's too warm," he said.

The water in the Klamath River is already dangerously warm, and coho are
only able to survive because cooler groundwater seeps up from below and
small tributaries provide pockets of cold water, the report says.

Moyle said the committee agreed with many other recommendations by the
National Marine Fisheries Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service. Those
proposals include inserting screens over irrigation pipes so sucker fish
don't get shunted into fields and adding gravel beds upstream so the fish
can lay their eggs there.

"It's a biologically very complicated system. (The fisheries services) are
really trying hard to err on the side of the fish, which is their job,"
Moyle said.

Interior Secretary Gale Norton called for the review last year after
farmers expressed doubt over the validity of the government's science. The
farmers offered their own report maintaining that higher water levels in
Upper Klamath Lake would not help the sucker fish. The farmers' report
blamed lack of wind and hot summers for fish kills.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's biological opinion said higher water
levels were the only way to dilute agricultural runoff that generates
massive algae blooms in the lake, robbing the water of oxygen and killing

A full report from the National Academy of Sciences, taking a broader view
of the situation, is due next year. That report will be presented to Norton.


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